Allow me to paint you an image: here we are, at de Lima’s Wine Bar doing our Tastings or somewhere in the Douro or Vinho Verde Wine Region doing a private wine tour and in the middle of having fun, learning loads about wine and having good food, someone asks “but how do I know which Port wine to buy?”. Today we will see the differences between each Port wine and when you should buy one, or the other.
Port wine mostly differs based on how it was aged. And unless you are a wine geek, you shouldn’t care about which brand at all until you at least choose which style of Port are you looking for. Lets see the differences between each first.
Here, the very first mystery you should solve is, do you want a Ruby or Tawny? What is the difference? When folks at the Douro Valley harvest their red grapes, they then have to decide if they will make either Ruby or Tawny.
Ruby and Tawny are aged differently, where Ruby retains the fruitiness of the wine, while Tawny has oxidative character. What does that mean to you? Do you want something that tastes of jams of strawberries, raspberries and currants? go for Ruby. Do you want something that is more on the side of dates, caramel, fig, coffee, nuts and raisins? go for Tawny.
Now that you know which style of wine suits you best, lets talk about the different quality levels.
Basic Ruby and Tawny – This is the entry level. Usually a blend of wine from different vintages to maintain the house style. Alcohol is slighty too noticeable usually. Don’t expect something that will wow you. But it is a good wine to understand if you like more Ruby or Tawny.
Reserve Ruby and Tawny – This is the next level from basic Ruby and Tawny. Couple of differences to mention. Reserve Tawny has to age for at least 7 years in wood, while Reserve Ruby doesn’t have a minimum requirement of ageing, but must be approved by IVDP tasting panel to fit the category.
These were the two more basic levels of Port. Now we will dive in the higher categories. We will start with the Tawny.
Tawny 10, 20, 30 and 40 years old – I won’t bore you with technical words. Let’s just say that here the wines are aged for decades. They are blends of wines from different years. The important notes here are that the differences between a 10yo and a 40yo is that the 10yo will still show you some fresh fruit characters while the 40yo will be all about caramel, nuts and toffee. The second note is that a, for example, 20yo will not be a mathematical blend. It won’t be 50% of 30yo and 50% of 10yo. I have heard things when visiting the cellars myself, I won’t mention names because my goal here is not to throw people under the bus, but that is incorrect information. IVDP has a panel of tasters that approves each wine. That said, each ageing term has a specific taste character that has to be met for that style. A 10yo can’t taste like a 30yo.
Colheita – These are Tawny Ports that were made from wine of a single year, no blend allowed. These wines must me aged for at least 7 years in small barrels, and must state the year of the vintage.
Those were the premium end of the Tawny. Here follows for the Ruby.
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) – These are wines from a single year that were bottled between 4 and 6 years of ageing. The one thing to note here is if the wine was filtered or not before bottling. If it doesn’t mention “unfiltered” on the bottle, it means it was filtered before bottling and these wines are ready to drink. The ones that mention “unfiltered” tend to be better quality and can gain with a few years of ageing. If they mention “bottle matured”, it will mean that it aged in bottle for 3 years before being released to the market.
Crusted – A Ruby Port that was bottled without being filtered, that has aged for up to two years in wood before bottling. Bottling date must appear on the bottle. Similar to LBV, it can add “bottle matured” on the label if aged in bottle for 3 years.
Vintage – This is the crème de la crème. The ultimate Port wine. This is the wine made from perfect grapes, because the year was perfect. Perfect amount of sun in the perfect timing. It must be wine exclusively from that year that is stated in the bottle. They age for a maximum of 3 years in big barrels before they have a very long time ageing in bottle. Please if you buy this, age it for about 20 years before you open it. I know, it is hard to wait. If anything buy it when it is 20 years old.
Single Quinta – These are somehow the wine that ended up not making it to Vintage, but that are still of great quality. Wines from as single year as well, but also from a single estate.
First of all, yes, there are white ports. Very common that people here a Wine Tastings say they had no idea.
White Ports can classify themselves the same way as Tawny: Reserve, 10, 20, 30 or 40 years old, and Colheita. Most White Port is on the basic end, very common for us portuguese folks to drink it with tonic in the summer, but if you can get your hands on an aged White Port, give it try.
Rosé Port came up in the late 2000s. It was not an easy road to introduce this new category. To be honest, I don’t have enough of an opinion to talk about Rosé Port. Apologies.
How should you buy Port Wine?
It honestly depend on how much money and how good of a wine you wish for. Obviously, the higher you go on the quality terms the better it is, hence the more expensive. If you are not a wine nerd, or if you just want to buy a gift for someone, I believe the best value are LBV for Ruby and 10yo for Tawny. It should cost you anywhere around 25€ (depending on where you buy it. Remember, Porto is touristy, you see things here) and it will deliver the quality you need without breaking the bank. Does it matter which brand? No, it does not. The average consumer wouldn’t notice the differences from brand to brand of the same category. Focus on Ruby vs Tawny, and then how good you want it to be.